Editor's Note: We feel the need to provide some coverage of one of the few big news stories in philosophy, which is the ongoing hostile exchange between two giants of the philosophical left, Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek. Since none of us podcasters has read much by either fellow or has much patience for following this story, I've asked PEL Citizen Michael Burgess to fill in the gap. For more info, check out OpenCulture's coverage here, here, and here.
Kant, who is credited with giving the Enlightenment its slogan, “Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use your own intelligence!”: is also credited with dividing philosophy in half. In trying to reformulate metaphysics and epistemology to preserve the possibility of science, he deprived science its omniscience and made consciousness its pedestal.
This tension lies at the heart of post-Enlightenment philosophy and could be said to define the trenches between the Analytic and Continental schools: the former values formalization, empirical demonstration, and metaphysics a hair’s breath from physics (to preserve the possibility of science…); the latter “human” modes of reasoning (from the formal to the literary), analysis of the empirical, metaphysics a hair’s breadth from consciousness (to deprive science omniscience and make consciousness its pedestal).
Analytic philosophy was founded in Oxford and Princeton in the early part of the 20th century as both methodological commitment to conceptual and linguistic analysis and a philosophical commitment away from Kantian metaphysics towards a scientific realism. This has developed today into an unthinking dismissal of Kant's metaphysics in many analytic mainstay schools (in Oxford's eight-week introductory course for undergraduates, Kant receives about a minute of gross mischaracterization, which ends with "Kant had a very interesting theory, unfortunately its premises are completely wrong."). This reaction by analytic philosophers follows every major thinker in the continental tradition after Kant (see for example, the Nietzsche entry in The History of Western Philosophy by Russell).
The first shot fired by Chomsky at Zizek then, could have been said by any western analytic philosopher against any continental philosopher in the last 100 years (from openculture.com):
Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it.
Zizek’s position, common to the continental tradition, is that there is no “collection of facts” free from ideology: a politicization of Kant’s categories.
Zizek is not aiming to make empirical predictions, his aim is analysis of the very machinery which selects and performs the empirical predictions.
Zizek's reply is therefore predictable:
Well, with all deep respect that I do have for Chomsky, my first point is that Chomsky, who always emphasizes how one has to be empirical, accurate, not just some crazy Lacanian speculations and so on… well I don’t think I know a guy who was so often empirically wrong in his descriptions in his whatever! Let’s look… I remember when he defended this demonstration of Khmer Rouge. And he wrote a couple of texts claiming: No, this is Western propaganda. Khmer Rouge are not as horrible as that... And when later Zizek was compelled to admit that Khmer Rouge were not the nicest guys in the Universe and so on, his defense was quite shocking for me. It was that "No, with the data that we had at that point, I was right. At that point we didn’t yet know enough, so… you know." But I totally reject this line of reasoning.
That is, what use is empiricism when it is infected by ideology, i.e. when the facts you selected and the meaning you ascribe to them are pre-determined by your ideology?
So Zizek goes on to say:
My God, you just have to listen to the public discourse of Stalinism, of Khmer Rouge, to get it that something terrifyingly pathological is going on there.
Do not discount reality, but do not just analyze the brute empirical (to do so is to introduce your own ideology!), but turn to other people’s analysis of the empirical to find out what is “really going on." We should turn our analysis to the machinery of empirical prediction.
Zizek anticipates a reply,
His [Chomsky's] idea is today that cynicism of those in power is so open that we don’t need any critique of ideology; you reach symptomatically between the lines, everything is cynically openly admitted.
Or, “The facts speak for themselves”: if someone is invading iraq and profiting from it, then they did so to profit from it!
What was Chomsky's actual reply? (from roarmag.org)
According to him, I claim that “we don’t need any critique of ideology” — that is, we don’t need what I’ve devoted enormous efforts to for many years. His evidence? He heard that from some people who talked to me. Sheer fantasy again, but another indication of his concept of empirical fact and rational discussion.
Chomsky, who admits to not having spent the time to understand Zizek's position, immediately leaps to the analytical political philosophy meaning of “ideology” (vs. the quasi-marxist one Zizek is using): ideology as a merely political system. Chomsky believes that because he criticizes an ideology, he is criticizing ideology itself. To offer a criticism of globalized capitalism form the point of view of libertarian socialism is merely to play one ideology against another: to play one self of ideologically-selected facts and against another set. This is to be within ideology, not offering a criticism of it (in the sense that Zizek means).
Chomsky also refers to several alleged slanders, which I have to mention since those on either side of the Zizek/Chomsky debate offer these facts as something relevant to the work of either man:
For example, in the Winter 2008 issue of the German cultural journal Lettre International, Žižek attributed to me a racist comment on Obama by Silvio Berlusconi. I ignored it. Anyone who strays from ideological orthodoxy is used to this kind of treatment. However, an editor of Harper’s magazine, Sam Stark, was interested and followed it up. In the January 2009 issue he reports the result of his investigation. Žižek said he was basing the attribution on something he had read in a Slovenian magazine. A marvelous source, if it even exists. And anyway, he continued, attributing to me a racist comment about Obama is not a criticism, because I should have made such remarks as “a fully admissible characterization in our political and ideological struggle.” I leave it to others to decode. When asked about this by Slovene journalist/activist Igor Vidman, Žižek answered that he had discussed it with me over the phone and I had agreed with him. Of course, sheer fantasy.
It is worth quoting Zizek's fully apology he gave at the time (from versobooks.com):
In attributing to Noam Chomsky the statement that Obama is a white guy who took some sun-tanning sessions, I repeated an untrue claim which appeared in Slovene media, so I can only offer my unreserved and unconditional apology.
I would like to add that, even if the statement I falsely attributed to Chomsky were to be truly made by him, I would not consider it a patronizingly racist slur, but a fully admissible characterization in our political and ideological struggle. There are African-American intellectuals who allow themselves to be fully co-opted into the white-liberal academic establishment, and they are loved by the establishment precisely because they seem “one of us,” white with a darkened skin. This is why, I think, the statement I falsely attributed to Chomsky does NOT amount to the same as Silvio Berlusconi’s misleadingly similar characterization of Obama as beautiful and well tanned: Berlusconi’s remark dismissed Obama’s blackness as an endearing eccentricity, thus obliterating the historical meaning of the fact that an African-American was elected President, while the remark I falsely attributed to Chomsky, if accurate, would point towards the ambiguous way Obama’s blackness can be instrumentalized to obfuscate our crucial political and economic struggles.
It seems as though Chomsky did not understand Zizek’s reply, saying Zizek claimed “attributing to me a racist comment about Obama is not a criticism, because they were ‘a fully admissible characterization in our political and ideological struggle.’”
Zizek states explicitly that he does not find the remark racist as it reflects a real political phenomenon: that of a black person whose cultural status as a black person has been over come by his political-economic status as an upper-middle class elite (“co-opted into the … elite”), thus problematizing any analysis which heralds a black president as a significant contribution to “our crucial political and economic struggles”: is Barak Obama a symptom of inequality maintained, or inequality fixed?
This insight of Zizek’s alone is enough to refute the claims laid against him, that he engages in “empty posturing.” The “debate” between Zizek and Chomsky has so far mirrored the insubstantial attacks throughout the 20th century between mistrustful analytic philosophers and the continental school. Until Chomsky takes the time to read and understand continental philosophy, it seems likely to stay that way.
It would be awesome if we could get them together on PEL and have them fight it out. Zizek spitting and ticking like a mad man, Chomsky using his condensing technique. The heavy weight philosophy brawl of my lifetime.
Zizek has a point about the limits of empirical data to draw conclusions about the reality of an ideology in practice. Noam has a point that it is dangerous to jump to conclusions based on an ideological and media bias and the importance of facts to gain a bit more objectivity. The racist nonsense lowers my opinion of zizek, Cheap theatricals that he tries to wriggle out of.
The selection of objective facts is in itself a subjective act.
This links to foucault vs chomksy. The impossibility to be objective if one is living in an ideological system. There are layers of subjective influence at work in any society.
Paul Hamilton says
Thank you for the lucid and informative article framing the debate between Chomsky and Zizek. You offer a sorely needed perspective!
I totally agree with Zizek on the point he makes, and it does appear that Chomsky missed it, but Zizek isn’t doing anyone any favors using a lot of ten-dollar words when ordinary dime store words would work even better.
But Zizek isn’t alone in this; there’s a tendency to become insular, talk jargon, and ward off pesky outsiders in every discipline, analytic philosophy and science very much included. Motivations for this vary from discipline to discipline: in economics it’s because they’re cheerleaders paid by the banks to keep the public in the dark, in science my theory is it’s just the (quite innocent and natural) weight of what Kuhn calls “normal science” keeping basic assumptions in place so progress can be made on concrete problems, and too often in continental philosophy it’s frauds keeping a roof over their heads and stroking their egos by pontificating about profound-sounding nonsense.
But in this case the toxic thing is Chomsky’s knee-jerk assumption that therefore ALL continental philosophy is cynical gibbering. This is lazy, and Chomsky doesn’t take the time to discover for himself whether there’s any there there in Zizek. But the guy’s like 90 and he’s supremely accomplished and I get why he doesn’t want to spend his time that way. But then he should just read the final line of the Tractatus when it comes to Zizek and spend his time where he’s desperately needed: saying sane, non-purchased things about the political scene.
Wayne Schroeder says
What your objective, logical and perspectival approach has provided in this clash of (publicly perceived) intellectual heavyweights who are experts in their own domain, is precisely your objective, logical and perspectival approach (which informs and is contributory) versus their confusion bred of Egotism which confounds and limits their intellectual/philosophical abilities.
“Cogito and the History of Madness” in Writing and Difference by Derrida is a great example of two philosophers going head to head, as philosophers (Foucoult vs Derrida). Both had to provide a deep hermeneutic of Descartes Cogito in order to converse accurately.
This paragraph was difficult for me to understand: “Chomsky, who admits to not having spent the time to understand Zizek’s position, immediately leaps to the analytical political philosophy meaning of “ideology” (vs. the quasi-marxist one Zizek is using): ideology as a merely political system. Chomsky believes that because he criticizes an ideology, he is criticizing ideology itself. To offer a criticism of globalized capitalism form the point of view of libertarian socialism is merely to play one ideology against another: to play one self of ideologically-selected facts and against another set. This is to be within ideology, not offering a criticism of it (in the sense that Zizek means).” Would appreciate clarity here if you could. There might actually be some intellectual traction on this subject.
Because neither Chomsky nor Zizek are raising clearly reasoned points, it is easy to fall back into the oppositional extremes of Analytic vs Continental (–well outlined by Michael) which has been the default position, but was hoping that there has been a greater integration beyond false opposites of these “camps” since the reality of our human condition is not contained by tribalistic camps.
I guess this is a good lesson for those of us who are less notorious.
Ian Lippert says
“It was that “No, with the data that we had at that point, I was right. At that point we didn’t yet know enough, so… you know.” But I totally reject this line of reasoning.
That is, what use is empiricism when it is infected by ideology, i.e. when the facts you selected and the meaning you ascribe to them are pre-determined by your ideology?”
This is the problem with Zizek, he is vague and incomprehensible. He rejects this line of reasoning? Who cares, that’s a completely inconsequential assertion. If he is going to make an argument then he should make it. What even is the alternative to drawing conclusions based on the facts that we have available to us?
The whole goal behind zizeks style of philosophy is to come up with a set of theories that are incommensurable with empirical analysis so that his ideas can’t be held accountable to any kind of principles and he can blather on about whatever Marxist cliches sells books to the class of pseudo intellectuals that have a need to impress their friends at their hipster dinner parties.
This is what Chomsky is getting at when he says how the Zizek styled philosophers of post modernism can’t give a simple explanation as to the importance of their theories or how their theories would inform our decision making process. When Chomskys scientist friends can explain complex mathematics of physics in a way that illuminates their field it make him question how their can be any value within a discipline that can’t even accomplish this simple task.
Chomsky has done a massive amount of empirical work in the fields of linguistics and political science what has Zizek done other than read a bunch of books and produced a lot of writings? What empirical background does Zizek have that gives him the authority to criticize empiricism? The answer is that he has no authority and so Zizek has to create “literary modes of criticism” and act as if there is a controversy that needs to be taught so that humanities graduates can justify to themselves that they can still makes claims about reality without learning a challenging discipline like physics or statistics.
To put Zizek on the same level as Chomsky is ludicrous, even given the fact that Chomsky is a second rate empiricist.
Philosophers who are critical of everything tend to get voted off the island pretty fast; this is pretty much the case with thinkers like Noam Chomsky and Richard Rorty.
Jason Stable says
What island? What are you talking about.. critical of everything?
Wayne Schroeder says
With Ian’s comments, we have the discussion of “empricism” versus “ideology” on the table. Both terms need definition, and then need to be backed up with a credible theory/philosophy. In the absence of these clarifications (what I think philosophy has been about in these areas) we simply have argument, first between Chomsky and Zizek and now among ourselves.
“Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning…
“People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning — they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another — but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying…” — George Orwell
Ethan Gach says
We have a definition of democracy. I can point you to any number of sources.
Daniel David says
I think you missed the point.
Chomsky’s frustrating in his inertia/personal satisfaction with his narrow focus of expertise. I saw a youtube where someone asked him a question about some feminist interpretation of X or Y and he responded that he really didn’t know enough to be able to give an answer… for 1980, maybe, but in the canon of the new millennium public intellectual talking about how his heterodoxy is challenging the system, maaan, that shit is not optional
Ethan Gach says
So beyond whoever is making the better point in general, what’s not in dispute is that Zizek is a serial liar, right?
Wayne Schroeder says
Substantive Issues between Chomsky and Zizek/Foucault/etc.
(see http://bebereignis.blogspot.com/2008/04/foucault-vs-chomsky-debate.html )
In the 1971 debate with Foucault, Chomsky takes a “rather innocent ethical ontology using very broad concepts of- ‘human nature’, ‘kindness’, ‘love’, and reiterating the necessity of decision in light of the gap [in agreed upon meaning]. ”
Foucault (arguing about the geneology of power) maintains that “all facts are culture-bred and thus intra-situational, and thus any positive programme based on borrowed concepts is but an indulgence on ideological supports for a present system of power.”
Žižek’s ontology is grounded entirely on limits, the limits of knowledge, of representation, of articulation. What is primary is this gap, this inability of the subject to take account of itself in its entirety. Any attempt at a formal ontology, even one grounded and structured by a gap is doomed to fail because it presumes too much.
Wayne Schroeder says
Substantive Issues (continued):
Why are these issue important? Whether we are inclined to side with Chomsky or Zizek, assent to particular beliefs (or dissent) it is important to be aware of the sources of our inclinations and beliefs in order to maintain an open and creative response for the best response to the challenges of life, including that of the use of power. May we develop the character to be able to rise to the occasion, and not become Weiners.
Ian Lippert says
This is all I can get on ideology, from zizeks wiki:
“Ontology, ideology, and the Real
In developing a thesis of ideology and its function Žižek makes two intertwined arguments:
He begins with a critique of Marx’s concept of ideology (as described in The German Ideology) in which people are beholden to false consciousness that prevents them from seeing how things really are. Žižek argues people’s deepest motives are unconscious, and that ideology functions as a justification for the existing social order. That is, reality is constructed through ideology.
However, The Real is not equivalent to the reality experienced by the subjects as a meaningfully ordered totality. For Žižek, the Real names points within the ontological fabric knitted by the hegemonic systems of representation and reproduction that nevertheless resist full inscription into its terms, and which may as such attempt to generate sites of active political resistance.”
I agree with the first part, although in statistics we would just say that people have biases that lead them to incorrectly sample their data. The second part is laughably jargon filled and its hard to understand what value I am supposed to draw from it that would add to my understanding of the first paragraph.
Michael Burgess says
> The second part is laughably jargon filled
Why should you give physics a pass when reading, “the euler-lagrange equation involves a lapacian over a…”?
What an odd requirement, that all academia proceed as though those writing in specialized fields had no knowledge of specialized fields.
“jargon” can be used by lawyers and managers to obfuscate or self-aggrandize, it can also be an essential part of specialized academic inquiry.
If you wish to know what the second paragraph means:
1. The Real is not equivalent to the reality experienced by the subjects
Define a new concept, call it “The Real”. The Real is related to subjective experience, but is not identical to it.
2. as a meaningfully ordered totality.
Specifically, subjective experience appears as a cohesive ordered whole, whereas The Real is not.
3. For Žižek, the Real names points within the ontological fabric knitted
The Real “picks out” aspects of the world.
4. by the hegemonic systems of representation and reproduction
where “the world” refers to the set of things which the prevailing cultural worldview take to exist.
5. that nevertheless resist full inscription into its terms
but this “cultural world” is not fully integrated into The Real.
6. and which may as such attempt to generate sites of active political resistance.
This lack of integration creates the opportunity for political resistance.
So, The Real is something like an unconscious background which is partly generated from and partly in tension with, ideology. There is a part of The Real which is not fully account for by (an) ideology, and this gap can be probed. There is something which we have access to that can reveal to us we are caught in ideology, the route towards political resistance is then to find these points.
Wayne Schroeder says
Just to add to Michael’s comments:
good effort jumping into the deep end of Zizek’s pool. Wiki does not indicate that Zizek is basing his ontology on Lacan’s three registers: The Symbolic/Real/Imaginary (see http://lacan.com/zizekchro1.htm).
His issue with ideology, the beliefs we form automatically, is that these beliefs come built in to language and society, which are founded on the Symbolic (signs, words, etc.) and sometimes on the Imaginary (fantasies and ideals that we make up) rather than the Real which remains unconscious, very difficult to come to terms with, but vital. (See “The Lacanian Subject” by Bruce Fink for minimal jargon in trying to uderstand Lacan)
“Žižek characterises ideology (and its critique) as stemming from three basic moments: ideology in itself, as a series of ideas (as referred to in the paragraph above); ideology for itself, in its materiality (ideological State apparatuses); and ideology in and for itself, when it enters into operation in social practices” (2003: 16-24) You can see that the concept of “ideology” does some heavy lifting for Zizek.
Ian Lippert says
“The real is impossible because it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order.”
That link still doesn’t explain anything about the Real to me and it looks like the point is that the real is supposed to be the unexplainable. What is its purpose supposed to be in the analysis of ideology if it can’t be explained?
Zack Medlin says
Zizek, in his thoughts on ideology, draws heavily from Lacan’s psychoanalysis. Below is my simplified understanding:
The Real is important in the analysis of ideology, but not as important
as Lacan’s Symbolic order. Yes, the real is unknowable at its zero-level (for a subject the Real is the repressed, the unconscious), but we still symbolize the Real, this is the Symbolic order for Lacan (or our imagined relations to the real conditions of our existence for a Marxist interpretation). Lacan is basing his Symbolic on De Sassure’s ideas on signifiers and signifieds. The symbolic is how we signify the Real, but it is not the Real, just as the word ‘tree’ is not a tree.
Zizek then bridges the Symbolic into ideology through Lacan. The Symbolic is regulated by the point de capiton, a quilting point that ties together the Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic for the subject. This quilty point is a master-signifier, i.e.: the Name-of-the-Father or the big Other – the big Other being Lacan’s term for the systems of societal norms and mores AND their codified trangressions (trangressions which are allowed, that go unpunished).
This big Other/Symbolic is essentially ideology, in that it is imagined by the subject but made concrete by their actions (at least the big Other is ideology as described by Althusser — based on praxis not theory).
Here we can use an example to understand ideology/big Other in how Zizek frequently uses the terms. In this example capitalism is the master-signifier, the foundation of the Symbolic. Imagine a kind of neo-marxist espousing all the old anti-capitalist soundbytes while wearing a Che shirt. His speaking out against the dominant ideology is allowed as one of the codified transgressions, because his actions – buying the Che shirt from the local mall – is upholding the dominant ideology. Here the Symbolic belief is not supported by the Real actions.
In short, where the Symbolic is language/idea based, the Real of a subject is act based. I think this is how both the Real and Symbolic are important in analyzing ideology.
How that was helpful.
Ian Lippert says
If you wish to know what the second paragraph means:
“1. The Real is not equivalent to the reality experienced by the subjects”
“Define a new concept, call it “The Real”. The Real is related to subjective experience, but is not identical to it.”
This is not a definition, you say that it is related to the subjective without describing what exactly that relation entails. The real is related to the subjective experience except when it is not? Ok that explains nothing. How am I supposed to know that I need a new word to describe subjective experience and how does that new word inform my decision making process?
“2. as a meaningfully ordered totality.”
“Specifically, subjective experience appears as a cohesive ordered whole, whereas The Real is not.”
I assume this means that the viewer thinks his subjective view appears objective, but the real is not? So the real is a subjective preference that the viewer thinks is subjective?
“3. For Žižek, the Real names points within the ontological fabric knitted”
“The Real “picks out” aspects of the world.”
How does the real pick out aspects of the world? Why use quotes and not just explain what the real is actually doing? If you mean that the real is constructed by particular facts of the world the I do not see how that is different than a subjective view.
In addition metaphors like “fabric” and “knitted” should not be used in a definition as exactly how the reader is supposed to interpret the metaphor is vague and imprecise.
“4. by the hegemonic systems of representation and reproduction”
“where “the world” refers to the set of things which the prevailing cultural worldview take to exist.”
“The world” isn’t mentioned anywhere and so I am unsure if you mean the empirical world or subjective world that is perpetuated by the hegemonic systems which I assume is the media and educational institutions. This still does nothing to explain how this subjective world is perpetuated by these systems. It is left intentionally vague for the reader to fill in with their own subjective view. This is a big problem, he is criticizing the subjective but he simply replaces it with his own subjective and can’t inform any one else’s subjective view that does not already agree with him.
“5. that nevertheless resist full inscription into its terms
but this “cultural world” is not fully integrated into The Real.”
Considering that you have not defined what the real is I don’t think you should be adding additional modifiers to the definition.
“6. and which may as such attempt to generate sites of active political resistance.
This lack of integration creates the opportunity for political resistance.”
May or may not be true but until the real is defined then I can’t consider this.
“So, The Real is something like an unconscious background which is partly generated from and partly in tension with, ideology. There is a part of The Real which is not fully account for by (an) ideology, and this gap can be probed. There is something which we have access to that can reveal to us we are caught in ideology, the route towards political resistance is then to find these points.”
“Something like”, “partly generated”, the words are vague an uncommitted and so I cannot determine what exactly you are trying to get at. Trust me, I’d love to find some use to Zizek but this explanation is no explanation at all. I have no problem with disciplines having their own jargon but the difference between zizeks jargon and the jargon of physics or economics (my discipline of study) is that the jargon has precise definitions that I can start from the beginning 101 classes and progress to greater understanding.
The purpose of this is so that people within the discipline can have greater commensurability to their ideas and people can actually change each other minds of the truth of a particular theory. The problem with zizeks vague jargon is that it is define by other vague jargon with the sole purpose of making theories less commensurability with each other.
The motivation to making theories less commensurable is so that you do not have to hold yourself accountable to the theories of other. Zizek can blather on endlessly and never have his ideas falsified and so he can continue selling books to his target market. Bt please show me I am wrong and that I would gain from understanding his theories in a way that would provide me more use than sounding like an over educated Marxist to impress my dinner party friends.
Wayne Schroeder says
You refer often to misunderstanding the Real, which Zizek adopted from Lacan.
Here is a summary to start with from an independent source:
The Real (from our favorite, Wikipedia):
The Real, for Lacan, is not synonymous with reality. Not only opposed to the Imaginary, the Real is also exterior to the Symbolic. Unlike the latter, which is constituted in terms of oppositions (i.e. presence/absence), “there is no absence in the Real.” Whereas the Symbolic opposition “presence/absence” implies the possibility that something may be missing from the Symbolic, “the Real is always in its place.” If the Symbolic is a set of differentiated elements (signifiers), the Real in itself is undifferentiated—it bears no fissure.
The Symbolic introduces “a cut in the real” in the process of signification: “it is the world of words that creates the world of things—things originally confused in the “here and now” of the all in the process of coming into being.” The Real is that which is outside language and that resists symbolization absolutely.
In Seminar XI Lacan defines the Real as “the impossible” because it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the Symbolic, and impossible to attain. It is this resistance to symbolization that lends the Real its traumatic quality.
Finally, the Real is the object of anxiety, insofar as it lacks any possible mediation and is “the essential object which is not an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence.”
Ian, if you truly want to understand the Real as used by Zizek and get to the point which provides comensurability, please refer to the clear text of “The Lacanian Subject” by Bruce Fink as well as http://lacan.com/zizekchro1.htm. You can’t hope to understand a philosopher through a blog alone.
Ian Lippert says
Thank you for taking the time to indulge my curiosity. While I shouldn’t expect to understand any particular complex theory from blogs,and Wikipedia, I should at least be able to get an idea of its value so that I can determine if a further reading Lacan would be valuable to me. I have seen the value in plenty of philosophical theories here at PEL that have led me to read the texts they were based on which added significant value to my understanding of the topic.
Now it could be that I just don’t understand the jargon but with the Lacanian proponents failing to provide basic definitions that are understandable in commonly used meanings of the english words they used, it leaves me with the impression that the vague jargon is just defined with other vague jargon which will only lead me in a wild goose chase in an attempt to understand Lacanism.
Jargon, in science, is used to precisely distil complex ideas into linguistic variables to facilitate communication. To me it feels like the jargon of Zizek is attempting to present itself with the explanatory power of scientific jargon but without putting in the difficult work required to produce precise definitions. Vague generalizations do not hold the thoughts of the reader accountable to any specific theory of reality (they are vague) and the generalization is an attempt to produce a narrative that will create agreement between the readers understanding of reality and zizeks theory of reality. The problem is that principles drawn from vague generalizations are not going to convince anyone that doesn’t already agree with you as the generalization does not take into the complexity of reality and will not convince other that have chosen to make different generalizations.
As to your definition of the real, your quote states that the symbolic is constituted in terms of oppositions, presence and absence. This is true of the definitions we use to describe objects in the world, a table can be defined by what it is and where the absence of the described table delineates the object from the surrounding world. But to state that the symbolic is constituted of only oppositions leaves out other aspects of symbolic language that are not made up of oppositions,ie where there is no absence outside of that which already exists within the definitions of objects. An important example would be the case of cause and effect, where an event of cause and effect is made up of the presence of the event and where the absence of the event is defined by the absence of the objects involved and therefore the definition of an effect is only presence.
So when you say that the real is opposite to the symbolic and has no absence I do not know if you mean the category of presence-only within the symbolic or if it constitutes its own presence-only category within the real with different properties to that within the symbolic.
The difficulty arises because you are trying to define something which you claim is undefinable. It’s fine to say that there are things that are incapable of being captured by our symbolic language but the whole point of defining the real is because the Lacanians want to bring it into the symbolic language in an attempt to use the real to prove their theories. But because the real cannot be brought into the symbolic it will always remain a vague generalization that adds nothing to the explanatory power of their theories of society.
It might make some people feel like they are discussing the society external to themselves but the reality is that they are only discussing their internal conception of the society which comes to them through their very limited contact with society. Their understanding of society barely rises above the folk science of society that is held by the average person within society.
I still do not understand why it is so hard to give a positive definition of the real. When you define something by what it is not, you leave the reader with an endless number of possible definitions as there can be an infinite number of things that are not the object you have used for your negative definition. The link you sent me uses that same vague negative definitions as was posited above and I do not even know if what you think the real is what that author thinks the real is even if you both share the same negative definition.. I would love to understand what your zizeks theories are and how they apply to society but so far you guys are doing a poor job of explaining them.
Wayne Schroeder says
You are correct, the Real is not easy to describe, as Quantum Mechanics is very abstract. Perhaps a more simple approach is the difference between the implicit and the explicit (I think Polanyi developed this philosophically). The implicit exists, but is not explicit but implied. Our own death is never fully explicit until it happens, and even then we do not get it, and yet it is real. This same phenomenon exists in our everyday world between the verbal and the nonverbal, the experienced and the known. When we try to verbalize, we have to translate unverbalized experience into verbal/symbolic representations of our experience which is always limited, partial and explicit, but which never completely expresses all that is implicit in our full experience. This phenomenon leads to all kinds of confusion in philosophy and in our ability to makes sense of our universe. This is not an artificial difficulty, trying to describe the Real (the source of our Symbolic) that is made up by philosophy, Zizek, Lacan, Kant (noumenal vs phenomenal) Plato (remember the Cave?), etc. but something that we all have to deal with and which affects our metaphysics, epistemology and ontology.
“Lacan’s earliest employments of the term “Real” use it to refer to material being(s) an sich, namely, to physical existents handled as roughly equivalent to Kant’s things-in-themselves. The Real hence would be whatever is beyond, behind, or beneath phenomenal appearances accessible to the direct experiences of first-person awareness. This characterization of the Real persists into the first versions of Lacan’s mature register theory as initially elaborated throughout the 1950s. During this decade of the “return to Freud,” the Real also gets connected to Lacan’s contemporaneously emerging conceptions of psychosis and Otherness (the latter to be addressed soon—see 2.3 below). Additionally, in the 1950s, Lacan tends to speak of the Real as an absolute fullness, a pure plenum devoid of the negativities of absences, antagonisms, gaps, lacks, splits, etc. Portrayed thusly, the Symbolic is primarily responsible for injecting such negativities into the Real. For instance, only though the powers of language can material being in itself be said to be “missing” things, since, on its own, this dimension of being always is simply whatever it is in its dumb, idiotic presence as never more and never less than sheer, indifferent plenitude.”
The concept of the Real in itself of course does not justify any political position. That is secondary. I
I still think you can get best at understanding the Real from Fink’s “The Lacanian Subject.” Here is a quote: “The real is, for example, an infant’s body “before it comes under the sway for the symbolic order, before it is subjected to toilet training and instructed in the ways of the world.” (p. 24). The abstract nature of the concept of the Real is not for the purpose of obscurity.
Ian Lippert says
I like the baby example. It seems to me like the real is unsymbolicized experience. I can buy into that definition, which in turn would mean that once we create a symbolic language to describe experience we lose access to other symbolic interpretations of experience and the real would consist of these other potential symbolic interpretations of reality, including raw experience free of symbolic interpretation. Would this be approximately correct?
If so, it begs the question of what other symbolic interpretations of reality would look like and whether or not the baby can actually experience raw experience. These two together assume that as we move the experience of the real to the symbolic it somehow changes our interpretation of raw experience, and this remains an open question that can never be answered because we have to “get into” the head of someone who has a different symbolic interpretation and at present the only way to do this is through symbolic communication which only occurs when two individuals have symbolicized their raw experience in similar manners. We cannot know if the baby’s experience of raw reality is any different than ours and we can never ask them because by the time they are capable of communicating with us their raw experience has been “tainted” by the symbolic language they have picked up by their culture they have grown up in.
It’s interesting to me to wonder whether or not people of differing ideology are completely incapable of finding common ground due to the fact that they have completely different symbolic interpretations of reality but I think in reality it mostly comes down to different groups having access to different sets of information or different truth criterions and not due to a completely different interpretation of raw experience.
Wayne Schroeder says
Right on. But there is another problem.
Once we symbolize our experience, not only does that result in possible difficulties in communicating with others, but in even being true to our own experience since it is once removed from the experience itself by the symbolization, and the symbolization of an infant is highly influenced by the demands of the parents.
The infant cries, and the parent says, oh you must me hungry, but the infant’s cry may be due to gas, which confuses the infant who is prone to symbolize as the parent symbolizes and loose proper interpretation or symblization of her own experience.
The second level of possible confusion is simply any person’s secondary distancing from primary experience through symbolization, so that symbolization, language, reflection has the continuous vulnerability to distorting the real experience: Reality.
Whether the baby can indeed “actually experience raw experience” is a significant problem which profoundly reflects the issue. Not only do others have “different symbolic interpretation” but our own symbolic interepretation differs (restricts artificially) from our own raw experience, because the “raw experience has been ‘tainted’ by the symbolic language they have picked up by their culture they have grown up in.” Precisely.
So, I think the primary problem is that the problem lies primarily with the “different interpretation of raw experience.” The subject of
“different interpretation of raw experience” is what I consider the forefront of both philosophy (philosophy of mind) and neuroscience (embodied cognition). I appreciate your hanging in there despite differences to get at the substantive issues. –Wayne
Ian Lippert says
Yes, this has been a productive conversation. Thanks for sticking with me as I try and translate the jargon 🙂
The question remains though if there are separate experiences of raw experience and what the consequences of this are. Since the definition of the Real relies on the fact that symbolicization simultaneously creates one interpretation of reality for the viewer and shoves the rest (along with raw experience) into the real, it follows that if symbolicization does not affect the individuals raw experience then the Real is a definition of a false concept.
For example, if we grew up in different cultures where the wavelength we currently associate with yellow (currently used by our shared English culture) was named yellow in my culture but red in your, this symbolicization would not necessarily create differing raw experiences for us, we would both be experiencing the same wavelength as determined by our genetically similar visual apparatus. Likewise I think that any difference in the experience of raw reality would be due to genetic factors and not by the act of symbolicization, although the way in which we symbolicize would also be genetically determined.
Your example of the parent incorrect symbolicization of the babies experience is not changing the baby’s experience of the raw experience but simply a mis-symbolization of the parents with the symbolization that would held by scientists. It is similar to my yellow/red example and says nothing about the baby’s raw experience.
In my view it still has not been shown whether or not the Real is a true concept and whether or not it is even a falsifiable concept. Additionally, assuming it can be proven true I still do not understand what the consequences of the Real are and how it operates on our understanding of ideology or the role it plays in zizeks philosophy.
Wayne Schroeder says
Since Lacan was a psychoanalyst, his use of the Real was for the purposes of helping people grow in their understanding of self, others and the world. Zizek then adopted his definitions for his own political purposes. So the concept of the Real works like the unconscious for Lacan, and you would have the same criticisms of the psychoanalytic term unconscious as you would of the Real, i.e., not falsifiable, not provable, etc.
And yet the term is used very widely, we do have slips of the tongue, dreams are considered the royal road to the unconscious by some, there are repressed memories which are considered to reside in the unconscious, etc. If we consider the Real as that which is unconscious, plus all of life that we have not symbolized or been conscious of, then it truly is unknown.
But it is not considered unknowable by Lacan as long as you have an analyst who is trained and paying attention to your unconscious slips of the tongue, dreams and repressed memories who can help you become conscious of your false beliefs and the blindness caused by symbolization.
In fact, according to Lacan, the greatest false belief we have is that we have a self at all. This is a shock to most people, but Lacan states that our sense of self, due to our extreme dependency is actually shaped by the attitudes of our mother, family and society, and that we are then made subservient by the rules and strictures of our father and society (the Big Other) so that we remain a false self without psychotherapy.
These concepts have been advanced by Zizek into the social arena as grounds for questioning the fundamental beliefs held by people about reality and society in general. I read Zizek as criticizing Chomsky’s unexamined life of naively believing what he believes–for having a naive ideology leading to errors like supporting the Khmer Rouge regime when it was genocidal.
Ian Lippert says
I don’t know if you’ve heard of Stefan molyneux and his freedomain radio but I am a long time listener and the true/false self is a common topic of his along with the unconscious so I am familiar with the theory. While I would not consider myself totally convinced due to problems of falsifiability I do believe that there is an unconscious to some degree and I believe that many cultures use threats of ostracization (either violent or nonviolent) to force individuals to conform to the ideological symbolicization of the cultures particular narratives about themselves and the world.
In the theories of molyneux he does posit that a false self is created so that the individual can ignore the coercive nature of his culture and continue to be part of the culture. The false self attempts to avoid the ugly truths of culture and the true violence of the culture only enters through the unconscious since the conscious self is actively attempting to deny reality, which I guess occurs through the way the conscious self was symbolicized.
This description of the real makes a lot of sense to me and molyneux is heavily influenced by various psychoanalytic theories so its no wonder a Lacanian world view has trickled down into his philosophy. With this better understanding of the real would there be a Zizek book you would recommend that gives a general overview of his philosophy and political theories?
Wayne Schroeder says
The Sublime Object of Ideology, New York: Verso, 1989 is Zizek’s first major work in English and it remains one of his most accessible books.
Mixing philosophy, politics and psychoanalysis with examples from high and low culture, he sets out in clear, explanatory detail his understanding of Hegel’s dialectic, the basic thesis that underpins all his analyses, and one which finds that contradiction is an internal condition of every identity.
Central to this enterprise is the examination of the theory which he returns to time and again – that the subject is the subject of a void.
> What an odd requirement, that all academia proceed as though those writing in specialized fields had no knowledge of specialized fields. “jargon” can be used by lawyers and managers to obfuscate or self-aggrandize, it can also be an essential part of specialized academic inquiry.
Even 3 years later it would be wrong not to include Chomsky’s take on this:
“I mean, suppose you are a literary scholar at some elite university. Or, you know, anthropologist or whatever. I mean, if you do your work seriously, that’s fine, you know. But you don’t get any big prizes for it. On the other hand, you take a look over in the rest of the university and you’ve got these guys in the physics department and the math department and they have all kinds of complicated theories, which of course we can’t understand, but they seem to understand them. And they have, you know, principles and they deduce complicated things from the principles and they do experiments and they find either they work or they don’t work. And that’s really, you know, impressive stuff. So I want to be like that too. I want to have a theory. In the humanities, you know, literary criticism, anthropology and so on, there’s a field called theory. We’re just like the physicists. They talk incomprehensibly, we can talk incomprehensibly. They have big words, we’ll have big words. They draw, you know, far-reaching conclusions, we’ll draw far-reaching conclusions. We’re just as prestigious as they are. Now if they say, well look, we’re doing real science and you guys aren’t, that’s white male, sexist, you know, bourgeois or whatever the answer is. How are we any different from them? OK, that’s appealing. And there are other things that went on. “
What on earth does it mean to criticize “ideology itself”? Please explain.
Ethan Gach says
Criticizing an ideology vs. [I]deology.
Michael Burgess says
Chomsky’s “ideological critique”: no the jews are humans like the rest of us, we are all equal, etc. etc.
Zizek’s ideological critique: what function does the figure of the Jew play in the nazi ideological system?
Zizek is asking questions about how ideology functions, chomsky is assuming the assumptions of an ideology in question, and disputing them.
yes indeed, now is Philosophy the working out of the conditions of such possibilities or a rational-ization of the terms of understanding/debate?
Jason Stable says
Jason Stable says
..thought I’d clarify. Appreciate the right-up on this Burgess.
I think what everyone else outside this website saw was basically end any lingering respect most unsure people had for Zizek. HZizek is mostly a charlatan with nothing much importance to say but thethrows in pop culture references to his cocaine propelled sounding blabber. Any one who takes Zizek seriously as a philosopher nee.ds to have woes with themselves
Thankyou Chomsky for ruining Zizek for me
Frtiz Donaro says
Lol. He does sniffle and rub his nose A Lot. But seriously, Zizek is full of shit.
That Zizek uses ancient propaganda that has been used by the political right and liberals alike to smear Chomsky is a pathetic,desperate move. Not to mention Chomsky has repeatedly responded satisfactorily to those particular attacks, imo. 50 plus yrs of non-stop activism… There’s a mountain of political writings from countless lectures, interviews, essays, books – to balance against these tired, largely forgotten charges, at least until Zizek regurgitated them because he had nothing else whatsoever. Zizek, great thinker of the Left! Zizek many times has praised Chomsky and then claims “well I don’t think I know a guy who was so often empirically wrong in his descriptions in his whatever!” Because of those examples he is more empirically wrong than anyone Zizek knows of, but he deeply admires him.
David Buchanan says
I’ve been watching this debate in various virtual places for a while now and can’t shake the impression that Zizek and his defenders don’t seem to understand the criticism. The various efforts to defend the Zizekian approach seem quite weak or even irrelevant. I’m not a big fan of analytic philosophy but Chomsky’s complaints, if I understand them rightly, seem to express my own bewilderment.
Take Zizek’s use of the term ideology, for example. As my Zizekian facebook friend Douglas Lain put it to me the other day, “Ideologies are the set of assumptions, mechanism and traditions that guide our behavior in the world”. On this view, ideology is more or less equal to the cultural context as a whole. This makes his use quite different from the ordinary definition, which means “ideology” is being used as something like a technical term. This term is used a basic working premise and yet it seems to be based on an invalid inferential leap – one that goes from “every thing exists in social a context” to “everything in that context is ideological”. This is such an extremely broad definition of ideology that the term sort of loses it’s ordinary meaning and instead it is a way to characterize the whole of culture as oppressive – and it’s oppressive in hidden ways that can only be uncovered by certain quasi-psychoanalytic methods.
The premise that everything is ideological is exactly the kind of thing that Chomsky is complaining about, I think, and it certainly prompts me to ask questions like, “how could anyone know such a thing?” “Why should anyone believe such a thing?” “On what basis is this assertion predicated?” It seems to be a naked assertion and yet it’s a very extreme and far-reaching position. It’s like a faith-based philosophy or something. And I think that’s what Chomsky is getting at too. The idea itself isn’t terribly complicated. You could explain it to a 12 year old in five minutes. But this does not count as a principle “from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions”. “When the fancy words are decoded,” the idea seems to be made up, an armchair view without any kind evidence to support it or reasons to justify it. That’s what baffles me. That’s why I nod in agreement when Chomsky suggests there’s no there there. Can anyone give me some reasons to think it’s a valid idea? I just don’t see it.
Doug Lain posted a YouTube video that goes a long way toward explaining Chomsky’s view of how technical philosophical terms should be used in general and I think you’ll see that Zizek isn’t even close. As Chomsky would put it, the Zizekian conception of the term “ideology” is “incoherent”, by which I think he just means its too vague to be useful, too unclear to be helpful.
Michael Burgess says
> The premise that everything is ideological is exactly the kind of thing that Chomsky is complaining about,
Good, because Zizek makes the opposite claim. Political resistance is impossible if everything is ideology. Political resistance is targeted precisely at the points where the real pokes through.
> But this does not count as a principle “from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions”
That isnt the goal.
> the term sort of loses it’s ordinary meaning
No, that is one of its ordinary meanings. It is in analytic political philosophy where it loses its ordinary meaning.
“the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.”
> As Chomsky would put it, the Zizekian conception of the term “ideology” is “incoherent”, by which I think he just means its too vague to be useful, too unclear to be helpful.
Incoherent does not mean unhelpful, nor is it something that can be judged by someone who doesnt understand it…
You linked to an excellent interview.
I highly encourage anyone unfamiliar with Chomsky’s approach in philosophy to watch this to get an idea of his views and style.
Wayne Schroeder says
Since ideology keeps coming up in the debate between Chomsky and Zizek, I think it might be helpful to identify the problem with ideology. Just to put the word in a more neutral light, if we use the concept of “belief” and rephrase the debate.
Chomsky comes from a position that since intelligence is innate, we should appeal to the common sense of ‘human nature,’ ‘kindness’, and ‘love’ to have proper beliefs in ethics and values in life.
Zizek comes from the position that our best grip on reality is the Symbolic and Imaginary which pervasively misses the Real and that we need therefore to be suspect of our beliefs, and of belief that the social order imposes on us.
Anything that appears to be jargon (e.g., Real, Symbolic, Imaginary) can be googled based on my references above. However, I would love to see someone tell Kant not to philosophize without jargon (and I would not want him to).
Yes, Zizek is speaking in the political field, but if you read his philosophy, politics is a subset of his philosophy. Most of the criticism of Zizek’s position would be eliminated by understanding his philosophy. That would eliminate non-substantive criticism, and then the true issues could be addressed.
Ultimately I agree with you and think that was mostly a helpful post, but I take issue with the way you characterized Chomsky’s approach.
Chomsky’s position is that power works in certain establish ways, both the way it retains power over, and also the way it approaches its subjects. This comes from his belief in cognitive structures in that it manifests in real, physical actions and language, as opposed to a Zizek-esque “subconscious” or “ideology.” So for example while Zizek might explain how you’re being fooled into capitalisms tricks by photos of happy coffee workers on the wall at Starbucks, Chomsky would argue that capitalism works because in the 50’s, a US backed coup overthrew the democratically elected gov’t in Country A and now we get cheap coffee because the workers are subjected to sub-standered labor conditions.
Ultimately Chomsky’s distate of Zizek is rooted in this. He thinks Zizek is ignoring what is important.
Zizek is NOT full of shit! He’s less full of shit than Heidegger. I’ve read both, I’m willing to bet most Zizek detractors have just made a snap judgement based on his presentation and love of attention. Granted, if you read him, he comes across in much the same way.
This debate is as much rooted in the Anarchist vs. Communist feud as it is the Analytical vs Continental one. Analytical philosophers (see Russell) are prone to condescention when referring to Continentalists, and Anarchists are prone to inflammatory rhetoric when addressing Communists (think they’re still pissed about all the executions during the Spanish Civil War).
If you really pay attention to what Zizek says, he has a very strong argument about ideologies role in the perpetuation of capitalism, whereas Chomsky is more concerned with pointing out the flaws in the establishments official lines and activities. Each is vital and necessary, and I’m sure Chomsky’s problems stem from his general dislike for post-modernism. He’s a curmudgeonly, stuffy white-haired intellectual from an older generation who couldn’t possibly understand modern life or modern people. He is certainly an American treasure, someone whom I’ve read volumes of and listened to for dozens of hours, but he has been irrelevant now since the end of the Bush era. I really don’t think his approach fits the way the world has changed.
Everyone remember this: Chomsky is a Civil Rights/Vietnam-era dissident, a much different time than now. Back then, troops were killing protestors on college campuses, physically preventing black people from going to school, and literally kidnapping poor kids off of farms and city streets and making them murder and be murdered. Nowadays, power works much more insidiously. A black man is president, we have a volunteer army whose actions are almost 100% endorsed by the media, and all the foreign dictators we support are being overthrown (Obama has no blood-on-his-hand-by-proxy like Reagan did in Nicaragua and El Salvador).
So although I endorse Chomsky, I also endorse Zizek, and find the latter far more relevant nowadays.
I’m amazed by how much confusion there is about these issues. For a clear re-approach to the issue, one doesn’t need to be “for” Chomsky or “for” Zizek, you just need to cultivate an intellectual virtue known as Intellectual Honesty (along with a bit of consistency in your thinking). Quite simply, after reading every text on this dispute, Zizek should not be given such an easy exoneration as he receives here, in this piece above by Michael Burgess. Most useful is this short video clip from 2011 where Chomsky explains his perspective on this sort of thing. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzrHwDOlTt8
He remains consistent and clear about all this. Zizek never answers most of the contentions, sidestepping them with other issues, leading up to his dismissive remarks about how it all boils down to (a simplified) Anglo-Saxon vs. Continental philosophical antagonism (if only). Finally, the best text usefully commenting on WHY Chomsky (and many others!) feel Lacan, Zizek, etc. ARE HARMFUL is here:
Cheers! -Daniel in Wisconsin
Zizek is intellectually honest and consistent. Prove me wrong.
Wayne Schroeder says
I suffered through your recommended references regarding Chomsky/Zizek, and understand that you believe that Zizek and company do not display intellectual Honesty or consistency in thinking. I too am not impressed by the quality of interaction on this argumentation/confusion by either Chomsky or Zizek.
Bottom line, if your are Chomsky, Zizek/ Daniel or Wayne, I do not trust statements without substantive philosophical reasoning.
I guess Chomsky and Zizek are riding on their previous intellectual histories to carry them through, and each has a boatload of publications to fall back on. For me, it is those publications and history I rely on to interpret their current comments.
Why are two fairly liberal Caucasian old farts duking it out with each other? It must not have to do with what they agree on politically.
So it must be egotistic/ideological/philosophical. How do two fairly liberal Caucasian old farts duke it out? Argument. Chomsky agrues–polysyllabic nonsense (of post-moderns/Zizek) versus mono-syllabic truth (of scientists/Chomsky).
The only recourse I can think of is retreat to the last most intelligent thing either Chomsky or Zizek has argued substantively and philosophically regarding each other’s position, and proceed with our own sense of what is correct.
I’m afraid that Chomsky’s argument of polysyllabic postmodernism as inferior to monosyllabic “science” is neither substantive nor philosophical. How could science proceed with monosyllables? Equally useless argumentation can be found on Zizek’s side.
The argumentation of Chomsky and Zizek are perfect reasons why we have both science and philosophy–to avoid the meaninglessness of their argumentation, and to favor both facts and reason.
P.S. See my comment regarding Sokal (as referred to by Chomsky) on a blog on this site: Sean Carroll Interview @ 3:AM Magazine
One key point Terry Eagleton made in After Theory was that “there is a difference between those that think up structuralism or feminism and those that apply those insights to Cat in The Hat.” Its one thing to write The Discipline and Punish, another to endlessly use theory to produce badly written journal articles that nobody will read. The Sokal Hoax made Chomsky’s point for him over 10 years ago. It is all pretty much settled. These debates are almost nostalgic for a time when critical social theory was taken somewhat seriously. Now it is just a series of paradigms that enable scholars in the humanities and qualitative social sciences to publish papers. They publish papers in academic journals, get hired, move up the ranks, etc…it is really all about careerism. We do not need anymore smarter-than-thou critiques, we need some useful analysis. Note that Andrew Ross, a key figure in the Sokal Hoax has spent the last decade or so producing useful scholarly ethnography and activist scholarship. Most importantly, he regained intellectual honesty. Something Zizek and the gang are a bunch of charlatans, mostly subsidized by rich individuals like Perry Anderson.
Wayne Schroeder says
In response to your referrenced Sokal hoax, here is my analysis (from an earlier post):
Your Parody was not just a hoax but a brilliant tour de force exposing the vulnerability of the scientific journal, Social Text by publishing “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text.
He published this theoretical article, based entirely on meticulously footnoted academic articles. He embedded scientific and mathematical concepts throughout the article.
In his own post-published words:
“I quote some controversial philosophical pronouncements of Heisenberg and Bohr, and assert (without argument) that quantum physics is profoundly consonant with “postmodernist epistemology.”
“Next, I assemble a pastiche — Derrida and general relativity, Lacan and topology, Irigaray and quantum gravity — held together by vague rhetoric about “nonlinearity”, “flux” and “interconnectedness.” (See http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html.
In the article he presented a tour de force of “citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.”
Sokal’s purpose was to challenge “progressive” or “leftist” academic humanists and social scientists for forms of epistemic relativism and obscurantism, rejecting notions of truth and falsity, which betray “fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social). . . [as] incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful — not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right.”
I commend Sokal for hacking the publishing system of Social Text and exposing its publishing vulnerabilities, including lack of peer review and well known desire to publish the controversial.
However, his academic hoax still avoids having dealt with the substantive issues philosophically, concept by concept–one of the by-products of ridicule without content. I suspect that a respected authority who knows his scientific language could turn the hoax on him using the same procedure. It was a nevertheless a brilliant and fascinating exercise.
JimBob: this hoax is still just a hoax, and has nothing to do with Chomsky.
Chomsky has taken the time to read continental philosophy, but he has not taken the time to understand it, as the length of time required to achieve the impossible is either infinite or zero.
I couldn’t agree more that Chomsky can be somewhat of an unscrupulous debater. Even when I agree with him, I’m surprised by his often shockingly arrogant and sarcastic rhetorical style (although I do think it’s honest). That seems to be what’s gotten him into this mess in the first place.
Chomsky hasn’t taken the time to read and understand Zizek or continental philosophy in general. N. Chomsky is not criticizing Zizek’s ideas in their own right; he is criticizing his own inability to understand Zizek’s ideas due to a failure of said ideas to operate with terms that coalesce with the way he uses certain words (e.g. ideology). Although who am I to accuse Noam Chomsky of intellectual laziness? I think if Chomsky had decided that Continental philosophy is really worth understanding and had chosen to be become a Lacan scholar instead of a theoretical linguist, we probably wouldn’t have X’ Theory or Manufacturing Consent because Noam would still be cross-referencing Lacan with Hegel and Heidegger in the original German (but having a much more difficult time since he never had time to invent a theory of universal grammar).
Who that understands Zizek disagrees with him? I don’t know of anyone.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Heidegger, but the continental method often becomes a book-reading contest because it is so difficult to avoid talking at cross-purposes. This kind of criticism may be cliché, but that is irrelevant to it’s value.
Chomsky pisses off the right, but no the right cares about Zizek because they have no idea what he’s talking about. I don’t think that’s a trivial point.
excellent article. though imho Zizek can get things wrong. Zizek is a fine spirit. So is Chomsky, even though, trying to talk to APs they all sound the same, only AP is philosophy and Heidegger always charlatan… you just haven to be like, hey, dude, take it easy, just coz you don’t like/understand/find useful/can get paid for philosophy outside AP, doesn’t mean they aint philosophy, not if someone being a philosopher or some theory philosophy really even that big a deal. still whoever take historical sensibilities out of thinking is either a fool or tool, plenty of both innit
once a liberator, now a tyrant, once a sound theory, now academic bore, once dominate, now questioned
I appreciate the richness of the background information in the article – it was wonderfully explained, but don’t see any substance in the “insight” that you to attribute to Zizek. As Chomsky said of Zizeks work, there is nothing there that couldn’t be explained very quickly to a 12 year old. That question about inequality is not even worthy of restatement in plain English. It’s a black and white question that also somehow manages to be vague, about a complex issue. Such achievements in obscurity are the only ones that can be attributed to Zizek or Lacan or Derrida.
Jonah Dempcy says
In Zizek’s first reply to Chomsky, you write:
“And when later Zizek was compelled to admit that Khmer Rouge were not the nicest guys in the Universe and so on, his defense was quite shocking for me.”
This should read:
“And when later Chomsky was compelled to admit that Khmer Rouge were not the nicest guys in the Universe and so on, his defense was quite shocking for me.”